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9-08-2015, 16:56

Individuals in society, 1600–1789

The title page of Leviathan , a political treatise arguing the need for an authoritarian, unchallengeable ruler, written by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), is one of the most famous images of society from the seventeenth century. Though the head of the king is that of a single individual, his body is made up of the tiny bodies of many men. In Leviathan , Hobbes argues that the true basis of government is not a divine right conferred by God, but the agreement – the word he uses is “contract” – of the residents of a state to form a society with an absolute ruler at its head who has both civil and ecclesiastical authority. Once they have done this – and it does not have to be in historical memory – they have no right to rebel; if they do not do this, they will live in a pre-political state of nature driven by fear and passion, a life that Hobbes describes as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” ( Leviathan , ch. 13). The title-page engraving illustrates this theory; the men, most of them dressed as gentlemen but a few as artisans, peasants, and clergy, seem to be in the process of fi tting themselves into the body of the ruler, literally incorporating (a word that comes from the Latin word for body, corpus ) themselves into his form. Using the body as a metaphor for society or the state did not originate or end with Hobbes; many of the words we still regularly use to discuss groups that act as units, such as corporate or corporation or Marine Corps, have their origin in this imagery of a body. This metaphor was employed to support many different and sometimes contradictory ideas in the early modern period, however. In Bosse’s engraving and Hobbes’s treatise, it is individuals who incorporate themselves into the ruler, making a contract that creates “an Artifi ciall Man.” Other writers and illustrators saw the body politic as created by God, rather than by a human contract, and as made up of different social groups rather than individuals. The ruler was always the head, but the eyes and ears were the king’s advisors or the clergy, the hands knights, the thighs merchants, the feet peasants, the toes servants, and so on. The body was a hierarchy, but one in which each part was dependent on the others. Political authors and playwrights illustrated this point by telling and retelling the “fable of the belly,” a tale attributed to the Greek author Aesop, in which other parts of the body rebel against the stomach, which seems to be useless. They refuse to nourish it, and, of course, the entire body sickens. This story could be used to make quite different points, however, sometimes by two characters in the same work. In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (1608), the Roman patrician Menenius Agrippa uses the fable in the opening scene to denounce rebellion by plebian “mutinous members” against “the senators of Rome [who] are this good belly” ( Coriolanus , I.i.152, 153). Later in the play, however, citizens and offi cers criticize Coriolanus because he “loves not the common people,” calling them “curs,” “slaves to buy and sell,” or “boils and plague,” instead of recognizing they are the feet and hands on which he depends. Rebellion of the members and tyranny of the head were only two of the problems that could plague the social body. Bodies could have two heads, which made them monstrous; the English writer John Milton (1608–74) used this analogy in 1641 to argue against the power of bishops, which had become, in his thinking, a “swollen Tumor” growing so “huge and monstrous” out of the neck that it challenged the proper head, the king. 1 Writers discussing the appropriate relations between husband and wife noted that no household should have two heads, though some did give wives the somewhat lesser, though still important, position of “heart.” The word “head” was linked closely enough to masculinity that Elizabeth I chose to have herself designated the supreme “governor” of the Church of England, rather than the “head” as her father had been. Her successor, James I, linked husbands and heads even more clearly, declaring in his fi rst speech to Parliament in 1603: “I am the Husband, and the whole Isle is my lawful Wife; I am the Head, and it is my Body.” 2 Like the physical body, the social body could become ill, another analogy with a long history. Just as consumption (tuberculosis) made the body thin and weak, so war led to weakness and a loss of population; just as palsy made the body useless, so making or importing new fashions was a waste of money that could be put to better uses; just as an infected and swelling spleen made the body sick, remarked James I, so the growth of London threatened the realm. Any of these diseases could spread, as gangrene could spread in a diseased body, and the proper remedy might be the same as for gangrene – chop off the infected part. As one character says about Coriolanus, “he’s a disease that must be cut away.” The analogy between the body and society was thus not simply one of structure, but also one of function; both were healthy only when all parts functioned as they should, and both required treatment when one part became ill and could not, or would not, function. In chapter 2 , we looked at the individual life cycle and at some of the social structures in which early modern people were enmeshed. Those structures of life did not change dramatically in the two hundred years after 1600: the seven ages of man continued to be used to describe the life cycle, rural households continued to be larger than urban ones, widows continued to have a rougher time than widowers, death continued to take many children, religious and occupational groups continued to augment kin ties. This chapter will focus more on the way the social and individual body functioned, or were thought to function, and what happened when problems interfered with this.

 

 

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